Do Colleges Have Dress Codes?

If you’re coming from a high school with a strict dress code, you might be looking for a college where the rules are more relaxed and you are free to express yourself through your clothing. You might be wondering: Do colleges have dress codes?

If that’s the case, you’re in luck. Most colleges in the United States do not have dress codes beyond expecting basic decency. You can dress as up or as down as you like for class. Want to show up to your 8 a.m. calculus lab in your pajamas? It won’t be a problem at most schools.

That said, some colleges do have dress codes. These schools tend to be religiously affiliated or highly conservative. For example, Brigham Young University and Oral Roberts University, both religious schools, require semi-formal dress for class, meaning no jeans or t-shirts. As you might expect, students at these schools must also avoid clothing that is too revealing.

A school dress code sign.

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What Is the Dress Code at Most Colleges?

The dress code you’ll be required to follow in college depends on whether you’re attending a state school, a private but nonreligious school, or a religious school.

Dress Codes at State Universities

A college student wearing pajamas to class.
A college student wearing pajamas to class.

If you’re attending a state university, there won’t be a formal dress code like the one you probably had to follow in high school. All those clothes that are commonly banned in American high schools — spaghetti-strap tops, midriff shirts, trench coats, “wife beater” tank tops, short skirts, and the list goes on — are perfectly acceptable at pretty much any public university in America.

Really, just about the only way you’ll get in trouble for what you’re wearing at a state university is if you wear something that could get you arrested off-campus. In other words, don’t show up to class nude or with private body parts on display and you should be fine.

With that being said, the politically correct vibe that has taken hold of most college campuses in recent years has caused issues to emerge surrounding students’ clothing choices. For instance, t-shirts with offensive or controversial messaging often cause problems at certain schools.

We shouldn’t have to tell you not to wear clothing featuring explicitly racist, sexist, or homophobic language. But some college campuses are so P.C. that even things that aren’t blatantly offensive are deemed “problematic.” For instance, political messaging that goes against the prevailing mindset on campus.

In these situations, all we can do is advise you to use your best judgment.

At a state university, the First Amendment is in force, so unless your clothes are considered indecent by the rule of law, the school can’t legally ban them. But other students may single you out for harassment or ridicule or make you a pariah on campus if they don’t like the messaging on your shirt.

Whether you’re willing to stir up controversy and possibly make enemies because of the clothes you choose to wear is a decision only you can make.

Dress Codes at Private Universities

Most private colleges and universities that aren’t religiously affiliated do not have dress codes for students. Even most religiously affiliated schools don’t restrict the way students dress beyond what the local laws say.

That’s because most “religious” colleges and universities are religious in name only. They were founded by churches and are still technically affiliated with that faith, but they don’t push religion on campus or in their curricula.

For instance, Texas Christian University, Southern Methodist University, and even Duke University are all technically “religious” schools (the first two even have it right in their names). But none of them have required church attendance or mandatory religious instruction. If you spent time on campus and didn’t know the history of the school, you wouldn’t know it had ever been religious. Not surprisingly, none of these schools have student dress codes.

At some private schools, including the three listed above, students tend to dress a little more formally than their state school peers. By “a little more formally,” we truly mean a little. These students aren’t wearing business suits to class.

But you’ll see more collared shirts, Brooks Brothers, and that type of stuff at SMU than you’ll see a few hours away at UT-Austin. That’s not because of any dress code or expectation to look a certain way but simply because expensive private schools tend to be a little preppier in nature, and that’s reflected in the way students dress.

Dress Codes at Religious Universities

Most religious universities have dress codes that students must adhere to. These dress codes typically require clothing that is modest and covers the body well. Clothing that is overtly sexual or that features messaging deemed offensive or antithetical to church teachings is usually forbidden at these schools.

Some religious colleges and universities go above and beyond simply outlawing clothing that is inappropriate based on church doctrine. These schools actually require students to “dress up” for class. At BYU, for instance, students are expected to wear business casual clothing to class and to school functions. The same is true at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, although it has loosened its rules in recent years in an attempt to boost enrollment.

Religious schools have dress codes to help create an atmosphere of respect and professionalism. In the school’s view, dress codes help prevent inappropriate behavior and clothing choices that could be distracting to other students.

Dress Codes for College Lab Courses

A student in a chemistry lab.
A student in a chemistry lab.

Even though colleges don’t typically have dress codes, there will be certain situations where you don’t have free reign to dress as you choose. For example, your laboratory courses will almost always have a dress code. This isn’t to control you or to restrict your freedom but to keep you safe.

Your professor will usually go over the dress code on the first day of lab, so there shouldn’t be any confusion. But here are some general dress code guidelines to expect for lab courses:

  • Wear closed-toe shoes. No sandals or flip-flops. This is because lab work often requires handling sharp objects such as X-ACTO knives, which can cause severe injury if dropped on a bare foot.
  • Avoid loose clothing. It could catch fire or get caught in machinery. This includes long, baggy shirts and pants.
  • Wear a lab coat. These will typically be required in labs where you’ll be required to handle corrosive or dangerous chemicals.
  • Wear proper eye protection. You will typically be given a pair of safety goggles to wear in the lab. They will probably look ridiculous, but they are important to wear, and that doesn’t mean around your neck.
  • Wear long sleeves and long pants. Depending on the lab, this rule might not always be enforced, but it usually is when the lab assignment involves handling chemicals or hot glass/metal containers.

What to Wear for Fraternity or Sorority Rush

Just because your college doesn’t have a dress code for class or other school-sanctioned events doesn’t mean it’s appropriate to dress down all the time. For instance, if you’re considering joining the Greek system and decide to go through fraternity or sorority rush, you’ll be expected to dress appropriately for the event.

While there might not be an explicit “dress code” for rush, there will likely be a dress tradition, and it will vary from school to school. Greek rush at SEC schools, for instance, tends to be much more formal than at schools in other parts of the country. Don’t be afraid to ask an upperclassman or someone who’s already in a frat or sorority for recommendations on what to wear when you rush.

As a general rule, you want to dress formally for rush, but not too formally. You want to look like you’re ready to party and have some fun, but you don’t want to look like you’re trying too hard or like you’re rolling into a job interview at Goldman Sachs.

  • Wear something that shows your personality. This is your chance to show who you are and what kind of person you’d be in the fraternity or sorority. Your outfit should fit into the same broad parameters as other rushees — for instance, business casual — but you don’t necessarily want to show up looking just like every other bro or girl who’s vying for a bid.
  • Wear clothing that is comfortable but not too casual. You’ll be doing a lot of walking and talking, so you don’t want to be uncomfortable in what you’re wearing. At the same time, you probably won’t get many bids if you show up looking like you’re just stopping by on the way to the gym.
  • Avoid anything that’s too revealing or inappropriate. Yes, you want to look good — “hot,” even — as the Greek system is known for having many attractive students. But you don’t want to look like you’re trying too hard to look good with super revealing or sexualized clothing.

What to Wear for Formal Events in College

Students dressed up for a formal.
Students dressed up for a formal.

If you decide to join a fraternity or sorority, or any other organization that has formal events such as date parties, you’ll probably need a few nice outfits to wear to those events. Once again, just because you can wear pajamas to class in college doesn’t mean you can dress down for everything.

Most formal events are exactly that: formal. That means either a suit and tie or a tuxedo for men, and a formal dress for women. If the event isn’t formal, then business casual is usually appropriate. This means no jeans or t-shirts. Instead, opt for slacks or a skirt for women and collared shirts for men, either a button-up or a polo.

Once again, you should also avoid anything too revealing or sexy. Remember, this is a formal event so you want to look classy and sophisticated. Save the print t-shirts, booty shorts, and hip-high skirts for the club.

If you’re unsure what to wear, ask another member of your sorority, fraternity, or organization that is hosting the formal for advice.

Do Colleges Have Dress Codes? The Bottom Line

With the exception of highly religious schools, most colleges and universities don’t have dress codes. At religious institutions, there are often strict guidelines on what students can and cannot wear, though not always. Some religious schools are more lax.

Ultimately, it is up to you to do your own research on any school you’re considering applying to. Ask a current student or contact the admissions office to determine if there are any dress codes or guidelines you should be aware of.

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